The Unbearable Stupidity of Authoritarianism

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by M G Radhakrishnan

5 min read
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Charlie Chaplin from the 1940 film \"The Great Dictator\"

Here goes a Stalin joke. On a visit to a school, the Soviet leader asked a student, “Who killed Julius Caesar?” The terrified boy replied, “Not me, sir.” Shocked that the country's education system was so pathetic, Stalin ordered an investigation by the KGB. The inquiry report came the next day. “The boy confessed.” Tweeting this famous joke recently, the renowned economist Kaushik Basu called it the “sinister stupidity of authoritarianism.”

Ironically, the exercise of brutal power often takes pathetically comic dimensions. Nobody understood this more than the immortal Charlie Chaplin who told us this tellingly through his legendary black satire, “The Great Dictator” (1940). Daring to laugh at Adolf Hitler when he was at the pinnacle of his brutal power, Chaplin showed what an inflated, vain, and childish idiot the Nazi despot was. While Germany banned the movie quite expectedly, even USA and Britain were reluctant to screen it, fearing to provoke the dictator. On this unforgettable film’s 80th anniversary in 2020, film writer Nicholas Barber wrote in The Guardian that Chaplin’s Hynkel (modeled on Hitler) was neither a brilliant strategist nor a mighty leader but an overgrown adolescent. “He is an insecure buffoon who bluffs, cheats, obsesses over his public image, manhandles his secretaries, revels in the luxury of his extravagant quarters, and reverses his own key policies in order to buy himself more time in power.” When some critics felt Hitler was too barbarian to be trivialised as stupid, Chaplin admitted he wouldn’t have done it, had he known about all the unspeakable atrocities in the Nazi labour camps. Yet, Barber reminds us that Chaplin didn't just capture Hitler but every dictator who followed in his goose steps. “If you want to see a crystalline reflection of the 21st Century's despots, you'll find it in a film that came out 80 years ago”.

Pawan Khera leaves after appearing before the Dwarka Court | ANI

How brutal and also stupid the abuse of power could be is being demonstrated daily not just by the central BJP government but also by the Kerala Police under the Left Democratic Front government. The paranoia about the black shirts and masks or even a black flag put in front of the departed CPM leader C.P Kunju's house is the stuff of black humour. The latest act of harebrained authoritarianism is the police summons issued to interrogate TV news anchor Vinu V. John. He was booked under serious criminal charges for making critical observations a year ago against the violent incidents on a bandh day during a TV debate. Criticizing the CITU leader Elamaram Kareem for belittling the violence unleashed against an autorickshaw driver by bandh supporters, John wondered what the leader would say if he or his family were targeted similarly. However partisan John's debates may be, this perfectly legitimate question enraged CPI(M) to take out angry marches against the anchor and the TV channel offices across the state. Posters condemning the anchor were pasted throughout the city and even on the walls outside his house. On top of it, a criminal case was filed against John on the complaint by Kareem, which the anchor learned only a year later when he tried to renew his passport. Now the capital city’s Cantonment Police summoned him to be personally present at the station for interrogation with stern warnings not to repeat his criminal act! (Coincidentally, John appeared before the Kerala Police exactly on the day Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera was deplaned and arrested by Delhi Police for his comments about Prime Minister Narendra Modi.)

Pinarayi Vijayan

In 2018, the police under the then Pinarayi government committed another similar act when it booked another TV news anchor, Venu Balakrishnan, for “inciting communal disharmony”! The anchor’s crime was criticising the torture of a youth in police custody.

These are acts of an authoritarian or police state and reveal the overzealousness of the forces to appease their masters. Police everywhere are the state’s agency to use force. These forces will do the same tomorrow when another party comes to power. The only change would be their targets. If the opponents and critics of one political master are the targets today, it would be the other way around tomorrow. Only those media persons and observers who dare to speak truth to power, whichever dispensation is in authority, would be the constant targets. But the situation worsens when persons with criminal records rise in the police force, as is increasingly the case in Kerala. Only very few countries with democratic ethos deeply ingrained in their systems could be different.

Hence the responsibility to build a less brutal and corrupt force is with the political leadership. One significant decision of the first EMS Namboodiripad government of 1957 was not to let the police force interfere in labour disputes. A police reforms committee was set up under the chairmanship of Barrister N C Chatterji, father of the late Somnath Chatterji, once CPI(M)’s prominent leader and Lok Sabha Speaker. Juvenile homes, rescue shelters, the appointment of women in police, etc., were some of its recommendations. But, soon, the same government resorted to police firing multiple times, even against factory workers, and also to meet violent protests that spread as part of the Liberation struggle.

Allan and Thwaha | Mathrubhumi

Why are these acts stupid, as they are brutish? They expose these parties and their leaders, damage their legitimacy and credibility, and make them stand their pants down before history. In democracies, political parties once in power would be out next time. But those who perpetrate brutal and undemocratic acts do not realise that they deprive themselves of the moral right to open their mouth against similar actions when they are back in power. Not just when they are in opposition, but even in power, their hypocrisy would be too transparent when they try to accuse other political parties of abusing power. Pinarayi Vijayan’s and CPI(M)’s condemnation of the BJP-led central government’s recent acts against the BBC appears a joke with what they did with the journalists in Kerala. Remember how the Left’s rightful critique of the Centre's draconian laws like UAPA etc was proved hollow with their reprehensible acts against the young Allan Shuhaib and Thwaha Fazal or their once proposed and later shelved police act amendments. CPI(M)’s attack against fascism boomeranged when critics called them fascists. The only way out for these political parties of losing credibility and legitimacy would be to pray for a shorter public memory. Though Kerala’s tradition of changing the government every five years is praised as a sign of its democratic credentials, perhaps, it is also a sign of the public’s myopia or even a lack of alternatives.

Abuse of power often turns stupid for another reason, also. It often turns those persons whom they want to show in a poor light into popular heroes. Opposition leader V D Satheesan likened John to no less than Swadesabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai.

In his 2009 article, The Unbearable Stupidity of Authoritarianism” in TheAtlantic, Erik Tarloff, the American novelist and screenwriter, recalled how maladroit autocrats were. He was writing about the unabashed ballot frauds practised by the dictators of Iran, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, etc. Tarloff says that if they had shown a little finesse to prove themselves to be beloveds by their people, the evidence against them wouldn’t be so cut-and-dried and wouldn’t look so much like poltroons and toadies and fools. What a universal truism!

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